Middletown may no longer allow the city court system to share information through city newsletters and inserts after some say a candidate for Municipal Court Judge used those resources to campaign for the November election.
The discussion came after some complained that Middletown Municipal Court Judge Melynda Cook Howard used city-paid collateral to campaign for the upcoming election, according to an email sent by the city manager to city council.
“One option we are discussing is in the future removing the courts from our web page and any other city functions,” City Manager Doug Adkins wrote in the email obtained by the Journal-News. “They are a different branch of government that the city does not control. There may be some benefit in letting them develop their communications independent of other city functions and then linking the city web page to the court records search section. …”
The city affords the municipal court space in a water bill insert to relay information to Middletown residents. Cook Howard, who was appointed in May, recently used the space to introduce herself to the community.
The biography for Cook Howard states she will run “to retain this judicial seat in the November 7, 2017 election.” It makes no mention if she’s opposed or of her opponents, local attorneys James Sherron and Beth Yauch. The biography also states, “The late judge Mark W. Wall … entrusted her with his court before his passing.”
Gov. John Kasich’s office appointed the former defense attorney to the judgeship some 3½ months after Wall’s death. In that time, the Ohio Supreme Court had assigned three retired judges to hear cases until an appointment was made.
“I would certainly categorize Judge Cook Howard’s remarks as approaching campaigning,” Adkins told city council.
Cook Howard insists the remarks are “not a form of campaigning” and said the print was “okayed” by the city and any complaints are part of a political opponent’s campaign.
“They apparently did not like the answer given by the law department and the city manager,” Cook Howard told the Journal-News.
While the city did approve the newsletter to go out to its some-20,000 water customers, Adkins said it did not get the regular scrutiny it normally receives.
“As happens sometimes, we were in between communications staff when this went to print … so this didn’t get the scrutiny that past and future inserts would normally receive for content,” Adkins told this news outlet. “Other than grammar and formatting, I’m not aware that any further review took place on this insert.”
“Four to five” people complained about Cook Howard’s statements in the insert — though none in writing, Adkins wrote in an email to city council.
“The language was reviewed and while I’m not overjoyed with it, I don’t see any false information in her statements. As the sitting judge, she does have access to certain city functions such as our web page and water bill insert, that other candidates would not have at their disposal,” Adkins wrote in the email.
The Middletown City Law Department does not review the newsletter, according to Law Director Les Landen.
The information in the biography “doesn’t pass the smell test for ethical behavior,” said Butler County Democratic Party Executive Chairwoman Jocelyn Bucaro, who called it “a terrible disservice to Judge (Mark) Wall’s memory and his court.”
“It stinks and taxpayers are fed up with seeing their hard-earned money used for political gains,” she said. “Whether it’s Cabinet secretaries flying around on private jets or a sitting judge using public funds to campaign, we deserve better.”
Both of Cook Howard’s opponents called the reference to the election, and the inference that Wall endorsed her, as “inappropriate” and that it came across as a city-paid political advertisement.
“Perhaps the city should invoice her for that,” Sherron said.
“She goes too far in those statements,” Yauch said.
Butler County GOP Executive Director Todd Hall said political opponents are making this a political issue, as the mailers were “approved and standard procedure,” adding that the public “has a right to know who their city servants are, and the municipal judge is no exception.”
“Democrats and Mr. Sherron are crying foul, but they are the ones making this political,” Hall said. “Judge Cook Howard is the incumbent judge, was appointed to the position and is entitled to the same treatment as has been the norm. The fact that Judge Wall had appointed her to the bench as his Acting Judge just verifies the faith he had in her. It seems the complaints here stem more from bitter political jealousy than true concern for the process.”